Stafford Township Police Department Unveils New Initiative

Sep 21, 2016

The Stafford Township Police Department has partnered with Ocean Mental Health Services to implement a pilot program in which a trained social worker will be on duty at police headquarters to work alongside officers in addressing the social service needs of individuals within the community.

Stafford Police Chief Thomas Dellane announced the unveiling of the program during a press conference at the Ocean Acres Community Center on Sept. 15.

“It’s a very difficult time to be in law enforcement,” Dellane said. “If you look at many of the recent law-enforcement-involved shootings, a lot of them involve people who are in mental health crisis. I thought that if we can get to those people before they reach that crisis stage, we can save some lives and prevent police officers from having to live with the fact that they took someone’s life in the line of duty.”

According to Dellane, this program was borne out of a “concern that our officers are oftentimes dispatched to a crisis that may not be criminal in nature.” Dellane cited instances in which officers did not have the level of training necessary to effectively address the root cause of the crisis, despite initially diffusing a situation, and the necessity to return to a location multiple times for the same crisis.

“We believe that greater collaboration with the mental health community is needed to meet our moral obligation to better assist people in crisis,” Dellane said. “Ocean County is home to the largest concentration of senior citizens and veterans in the state, and it also experiences the second-largest number of psychiatric emergency screenings in the state. If we have better training and better resources available to us, we may be able to de-escalate a situation without having to use force.”

The pilot program is expected to run through June 15, 2017, and will be fully funded by Ocean Mental Health Services. In conjunction with instituting the program, Meghan Corrigan, a licensed clinical social worker with Ocean Mental Health, will be stationed at Stafford police headquarters twice per week to help “assess and assist with services,” she said.

“Our goal is to provide assessment, support, referral and linkage to community members that have been identified by police officers that they feel are in need,” Corrigan said. “This is designed to be very proactive. The officers are in the ideal position to identify which community members may be at the beginning stages of a crisis or a situation that really can escalate if some type of intervention isn’t put in place. It’s our hope to demonstrate that this is a monumental need.”

Types of cases Dellane and Corrigan anticipate focusing on include but are not limited to: mental health issues with follow-up to include available programs and treatment; substance abuse issues with follow-up to include available programs and treatment; economic hardship with referral to appropriate social service agencies; isolation, particularly of senior citizens; health disparities; and familial discord, particularly involving juvenile and parent relations.

Some of the goals outlined for the program are to: identify community resources that will creatively address the needs of those served by this program; provide early intervention services in order to avoid future crisis and involvement of law enforcement; decrease the use of emergency and acute services such as hospital emergency departments; offer consultation and education to officers within the police department; and maintain ongoing data and assessment for the purpose of evaluating pilot program effectiveness.

Dellane said he is hopeful the data accumulation and assessment records during the life of the pilot program will lead to further funding – either through grants or township appropriations – so the program can remain in place beyond next June. He hopes this program can be further developed to have a social worker on site at police headquarters for a majority of the week, rather than just two days.

“For now, we’ll see how it all goes and see if we can continue it in June,” he said. “I’d love to see it stay in place and be available to us six or seven days a week at some point. I really believe this is going to be a great program for us, and it’s definitely going to benefit the community.”

Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato said Stafford Township police “should be lauded for this effort.”

“I think this program is progressive, and it’s the new face of law enforcement,” Coronato said. “And I think it’s a win-win situation for all involved. The public is better served to get services quicker and more adequately, and it will help train the officers as to better identify the people who have a problem and how to better handle the people who have these problems. That’s why we have to embrace this.”

Mayor John Spodofora also applauded the township’s police department for taking on this new role within the community in an effort to help better serve it.

“I believe in this program,” Spodofora said. “Our police want to help everybody, and I’m proud of the direction we’re heading. It’s one thing to do your job. The other part is to do your job and then take the next step, and that’s what our police do. They make Stafford Township better.”

According to Dellane, no other police department in New Jersey has such a program in place, and much of his personal research regarding it was focused on efforts done in other states, such as Illinois and Vermont.

“From what I’ve seen, it’s highly successful in other parts of the country,” he said. “And I truly believe it’s going to work well here as well. This is going to be just one more element of providing better service to Stafford Township.”

— David Biggy

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